How McGill Engineering Can Show Leadership in Equity

With Farnangate making it all the way to Fox News, the last couple months have been interesting times for equity at McGill. However, even if SSMU’s equity policy hadn’t reached such zeniths of intelligent and mature discourse, McGill students would have been talking about equity and equity policy.

Do we need equity? Do we need an institutionalized equity policy? How has equity come to be what it is now? How can we improve it? There have been many articles.

I’ve read about how it’s not acceptable to tell someone that they shouldn’t be offended by something and this rule isn’t open to utilitarian negotiations. Perhaps the official policies of SSMU and the EUS are malleable, but to suggest that there is a limit to what constitutes legitimate offense is the same as telling someone that their feeling is wrong.

I’ve read about how equity has become a sacred cow that is blindly obeyed and enforced on everyone by a minority of students who think that their words form the new testament of future moral codes. They want to shut down free speech, and they have no right to point out micro-aggressions because they’re so micro- that no one can even tell if they’re there at all.

The majority of articles take the stance that equity is necessary but everyone is doing it wrong. I’ve read over and over about why SSMU is deluded and why equity policy, or ‘policing’ as it most commonly manifests itself, shouldn’t be a thing. I agree with many of these points. But not once have I encountered Part 2 of this discourse: what an equity policy should be. That is what I want to do here.
So let’s start from the beginning: equity policy has to exist. Institutions that govern are responsible for and expected to have policies that guide their actions and their thinking. This is why the EUS will not leave unsigned cheques lying around: it’s bad practise. And it is also why our federal government makes official proclamations approving or disapproving of foreign happenings: it has to lead the country in a way of thinking; guiding our actions. It is not always correct of course, but equity is something we should support and I’ll explain why.

The EUS supports groups like Sustainability in Engineering at McGill (SEAM) and Global Engineering (GE) that aim to share knowledge about environmental and social sustainability. We see that these considerations are becoming increasingly important to engineers in the workforce (and life in the 21st century), and we also see opportunities to enhance the engineering curriculum to deal with them.

Social sustainability, or equity, is like environmental sustainability in the sense that it aims to iron out old kinks in our society that still cause problems. The purpose of government is to lead people and to show leadership, and the government must guide the way in showing what is right, and that is to participate in ‘ironing out’ these kinks (I am presuming historical moral progress, but this is not a controversial assertion; see Steven Pinker’s The Surprising Decline in Violence). The federal government has a Minister of Status of Women for this reason: to “promote equality for women and their full participation in the economic, social and democratic life of Canada.” This is an equity policy.

These policies encourage groups that have traditionally been oppressed and/or ignored to take up their place in society where they belong, and also for the majority to adapt to this. It can be hard for the people who have never been discriminated against (i.e. are in power) to make room for others. It is very easy to propagate inequities because overcoming them requires a positive re-evaluation that takes genuine thought to make happen and because a lot of people don’t seem to have the time or energy to do this, equity is consequently very fragile and difficult. I hope you can see why it might be a little touchy to see equity treated carelessly, and why we have to defend it. Yes, equity is all about ‘treating people like people’, but this is a lot harder than you would imagine, especially when you consider how people actually treat people. It boils down to respect and genuinely listening to others, and to do this in the fullest way requires a sophisticated discourse. Yes, Uganda is creating awful legislation against gays, but micro-aggressions still matter in Canada.

McGill Engineering has a poor track record for supporting the mindset behind equity. Some recent examples include misogyny on the cover of one of our publications that had the Dean lecturing editors on what’s appropriate in papers representing Engineering. Another example was one of our student groups coercing our VP Communications into abusing his power in sending out an email with verbatim equity policy juxtaposed next to an imaginary story about the plight of winter-loving reptiles. He made a huge mistake in using his EUS email access to do this, but his reckless and brash framing of equity showed that some engineering students do not have an appreciation for how important, powerful, and difficult equity and equity policy can be.

Our faculty has the lowest percentage of women in it and consequently we have the greatest need for equity. Engineering is a powerful discipline, and from historical perceptions of it as dirty, tough, and solitary work, women continue to be discouraged from enrolling. At GE’s Gender Paradigms in Engineering event last week, the speaker discussed why there is a perception that women are bad drivers: only men designed the first cars, and they designed them to fit the male body with no consideration for women, so women actually were bad drivers because they couldn’t see over the wheel. This is just one example of why we need more women in engineering and more diversity in engineering in general: to produce a better society that works for everyone.
Promoting Opportunities for Women in Engineering (POWE) works towards this, and is another important group in our faculty. By bringing high school girls from around Montreal to McGill to learn about what engineering really is, POWE is showing them that it is a career that they can fit into. POWE has evolved gloriously over the years to become a very open and inviting group that men can participate in just as much as women can, and its members are fine representatives of our faculty and school.

The purpose of equity policy in engineering is to lead our members to think about other people in a more evolved way than they did in high school; otherwise there is no opportunity to encourage this maturation. To me, leadership in equity is closely tied to leadership in general: leaders have to give a voice to disadvantaged groups specifically, because the majority already takes care of itself. The alternative is termed the ‘tyranny of the majority’.

We can show leadership in equity by re-thinking how we see ourselves in the Engineering community because it is diverse and constantly changing, and if we only try to understand people who think like us already, we will fail. We can do this by supporting groups that support equity in Engineering like GE and POWE, and attending their events where we might learn more about how we impact other people, and how we can be more equitable.

We can do this by reflecting the engineer of the 21st century in our groups: we have to internalize externalities, we have to have respect for other fields like philosophy or sociology as they can help guide us in thinking what it is we should be engineering in the first place, similar to how economics influences our decisions too. We have to put down the calculator every once in a while so we can think about what we are calculating. We can do this with discussions.

Traditions are good, but they have to evolve to meet the modern world and the rest of McGill. This year is the first time ever the incoming EUS executives will attend a workshop on equity so that we can learn how to lead in equity, and lead the EUS. This year was also the first year that FACC 100 had a talk about equity in the curriculum, and other discussions about equity in Engineering have taken place as well. These recent developments are signs that a shift in mentality has been taking place in McGill Engineering, and it needs to be sustained. None of these involve equity ‘policing’ and none involve limiting freedom of speech. Equity is an open and inviting process that you have to listen to and talk about, not have enforced on you. The goal is to show people why they should not want to say things that are unequitable, not to tell them they can’t, but this requires empathy, interest and a bit of intellectual engagement for people to be open to.

It is critically important to show leadership in equity in the EUS and in Engineering; to guide our leaders, people who represent the EUS, and our members. University is a place to learn new things and new ways of thinking, and this is where we have to have these conversations. This is what I will be supporting as an executive in the EUS next year.

Alex Grant


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Plumber’s Ledger or the Engineering Undergraduate Society of McGill University.


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